Socrates joins the Board


(Perspectives) `Truth of the matter 6,7 June 1998, Weekend FT p. IV

Socrates joins the Board by Christian Tyler

Nothing is too exotic when it comes to equipping our modern managers for
their solemn task. They go rock-climbing, white water rafting and
fire-walking. They have played Lego, studied medieval painting and been
closeted on retreat in Benedictine monasteries. Their prescibed bedtime
reading includes Jacques Derrida, Machiavellis The Prince and Sun Tzus Art
of War. What is going on? Cynics will say company managers are just deeply
insecure and are being exploited by clever entrepeneurs. Caught between
the demands of industrial efficiency and human decency, they are searching
at the same time for sure-fire success and for moral guidance in a world
of shifting values. Or, the explanation could be simpler. It is implied in
the fact that these mostly youthful pursuits are being discovered and
deployed long after school or university.
Among the latest training recipes is a book called Socratic Dialogue in the
Marketplace by Jos Kessels of Amsterdam. Kessels describes himself as a
dialogue consultant and his book (sorry, in Dutch only) is, as its title
suggests, about rigorous thinking. More precisely, it is Kessels attempt to
apply the ancient and forgotten art of dialectic to business problems.
One of his consultants brought the Socratic method to bear on budget
priorities in the Netherlands sewage system. (More reflection, less money
down the drain!). Kessels has dialogued with bankers, tax inspectors,
retailers, healthworkers and the police. Last weekend he brought his
message to a seminar in Surrey.
Professional philosophers are taking their skills to market, perhaps for
the first time since the Sophists of ancient Greece charged fees for
political spindoctoring and personal consultancy.
Already they have frighthened the psychotherapy industry by offering their
services at reduced rates (about $100 an hour in New York) as facilitators
to help people think their problems through.
We look at the persons conceptual history, not their emotional history,
explained Karin Murris, another Dutch philosopher, who chairs the Society
of Consultant Philosophers in Newport, Pembrokeshire. Often, peoples
thinking just gets stuck.
At first sight, Socrates looks absolutely the wrong model for managers
seeking the grail of truth. His method of negative dialectic (as portrayed
by Plato, anyway) consisted of inviting people to give their definition of
some concept, then demolishing it, often by ridicule and quibble. Rarely
did he offer an alternative himself. By encouraging a disrespectful
nihilism in the young blades of Athens, he undermined Athenian democracy,
wrote the celebrated American journalist Izzy Stone in his The Trial of
Socrates. He was so irritating, according to St Augustine, that he
contributed to his own trial and death by hemlock.
Actually, the new Socratics play down Socrates behaviour. He is the brand
name. What they use instead is a system derived from Platonic dialogue at
the turn of the century by a German neo-Kantian called Leonard Nelson.
The first step is for the board or committee to agree a formulation of the
question it wants to discuss. This can take time, since any version of a
question is likely to contain within it the - usually unrecognised -
prejudice of its formulator. (Which is why politicians are so shy of the
single question referendum.)
Next, the meeting tries to select a real-life example of the question.
Finally, it goes back to the abstract, to tease out - if it can - the
general principle enshrined in the example. What is our companys social
responsibility? What rights do we give employees? What are our business
The point, say the Socratics, is for the managers to learn what they really
believe, not by shouting or pulling rank, but by slowly and rigorously
arguing the thing through. Only thus can they reach a durable agreement.
It is, in other words, supervised brainstorming. To make the business of
thinking more enjoyable, philosophical consultants will organise a diner
pensant. Experience shows that that conversation develops best during a
shared meal, as this allows for the ideal combination of ease and
concentration, says the Kessels brochure. The doctor suggests a maximum of
six around the table in a private dining room, starting at 6pm and ending
at 10.
If the new Socratics are right in saying the art of dialectic appears
nowhere in the management literature, the question remains: why should
grown-ups heading big businesses, budgets or labour forces need philosopers
to tell them how to think?
The first part of the answer would seem to follow the standard
justification for employing any sort of management consultancy: it is
easier for the outsider to see what needs doing than it is for the insider.
But the second part is less flattering. It is that logical thinking is just
too difficult - for managers as for anybody else. Even if they can do it
for themselves, they cannot always stimulate it in others. So, when outdoor
games are thought to be good for teamspirit, indoor games like Socratic
dialogue surely cannot be bad.
The eminent Harvard classicist, Bernard Knox, in his book, The Oldest Dead
White European Males, argued that an education in the humanities as devised
by the Ancient Greeks - the Sophists, in fact - is indispensible for making
decisions in the modern world.
Is it this which managers lack today? If so, it is time to scrap all those
vocational courses at school and university, time to wind up those MBA
programmes. Let them read Rhetoric.